Labour needs an angry leader: it's time for Ed Miliband to go to war

He has been ruthless before, as his brother knows

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The Independent Online

If you get close enough to the two despatch boxes in the House of Commons, as I did on a non-sitting day last week, you will notice that the one on the Government side, where David Cameron stands to take PMQs, is a little more damaged than the one by the Opposition benches.

It’s quite hard to rough-up these boxes, which are made from the Puriri, a tough New Zealand hardwood, and boast ornate bronze embellishments. You have to get very close to see the marks but they are there. This may be a legacy of the Great Clunking Fist of Gordon Brown. Or it may reveal the toll taken by Cameron on his days when Flashman takes over. But the unblemished Opposition despatch box confirms what many Labour MPs are saying: Ed Miliband just isn’t angry enough.

What is clear from last week’s PMQs is that Cameron is going to use the allegation that Miliband wants to “weaponise” the NHS over and over again until 7 May. The PM has weaponised “weaponise”. A 10-point lead for Labour on the NHS is going to be eaten away by this word until Miliband does something about it. It’s no good him claiming he “can’t remember” saying it to the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson. This sounds weak and feeds the caricature (a hungry monster) of an absent-minded Miliband who forgot the deficit.

As appalling as the word sounds – particularly when Cameron first deployed it, as the Charlie Hebdo massacre was unfolding in Paris (and I wrote then that it was an ill-advised word) – Miliband now needs to throw it back in the PM’s face. He needs to stand at that smooth despatch box, give it an angry thump and say: “You bet I used the word ‘weaponise’ about the NHS. Because I am so angry at what your party has done, Prime Minister, to our national health service – the botched reorganisation that failed to include social care, the closure of A&E departments due to cuts – that I am going to war with you on this. Weaponise? Too right I’m going to weaponise it. I am that angry.”

General elections are like wars and in war, there is no point in sounding reasonable. As the then Admiral of the Fleet Jackie Fisher said in 1903: “The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility.” As revealed today, Labour aren’t going to do negative campaigning during the election. Surely this is a mistake. Labour MPs and the party’s traditional voters need Miliband to get angry.

So what is staying Miliband’s hand? He has been ruthless before, as his brother knows. Has his voice been muffled by the guilt of that previous war? Or is it, more simply, that he is just not angry enough about the NHS? I find it strange if so, given that – even if it wasn’t Miliband himself who used the word “weaponise” – this was the clear strategy of his team.

So where are the weapons, this armoury? In his speech last week on the NHS, Miliband condemned what he called the Tory “betrayal” of the health service but, in the week we remembered the death of Britain’s great wartime leader Winston Churchill, it lacked real ammunition.

At the same time, Cameron, who in 2010 promised a “bare-knuckled fight” to save hospitals, has his sleeves rolled up and is beating Miliband on what should be Labour’s strongest issue. Opposition MPs are furious because at stake is the very outcome of the election itself. This is no time for “can’t remember”. It is time for Miliband to get angry.

Last supper for someone

The Labour leader could have used his speech to the annual Westminster Correspondents Dinner last week to draw a line under the “weaponise” problem, a great opportunity when he had a captive audience. But he didn’t.

He did, however, make some excellent self-deprecating jokes – including one that he was an “international sex symbol”, after reports that he and his wife Justine dined with George and Amal Clooney, and another about that bacon sandwich photo.

Self-deprecation, even from vain prime ministers such as Tony Blair, is always good in a party leader. Given the speaker at these dinners alternates between the two main parties, the big question is about who will address next year’s dinner: Cameron as Prime Minister or a new leader of a Conservative Opposition?

Impressionable leaders

On Wednesday evening, I crossed the Thames from Westminster for the Political Book Awards at the giant Imax cinema on London’s South Bank. It was hosted by Rory Bremner, for whom joke-telling comes rather more naturally. Bremner is known for his impressions of Tony Blair but I hadn’t heard his excellent Barack Obama, who morphs into Kermit the frog, and his take on Cameron – not known for having a distinctive voice – is brilliant. Which makes me wonder if its time Bremner had his own television series again.

Tehran between the covers

I was one of the judges at the Political Book Awards, in the category for the debut book of the year. The deserved winner was City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai, which tells the stories of six Tehranis and their secrets. It is utterly gripping and one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Kids need to get real

A primary school in Londonderry has recruited a speech therapist because some children spend so much time on tablets and computers they are struggling with language. This is a depressing but unsurprising development in our digital age.

Yet more alarming was the revelation during a BBC report on the story that some children stand at shop windows and try to swipe what they think is a giant screen. If this is true, it is utterly chilling.

Computers and tablets can be fantastic educational tools for children, exposing them to vast reservoirs of knowledge. But it has got to the point where our children are losing the ability to interact with the environment around them: picking up sticks and leaves in the park not only keeps their immune systems healthy, it keeps them in touch with the real world.